In February 2011, I read an article in Time Magazine about Singularity. My understanding of the article was that in 2045, it is expected that computers will ‘catch up’ with the human brain. I have absolutely no idea what that means for humanity. It sounds scary yet exciting at the same time but for me, it is impossible to conceptualize the outcome.
And that is a critically important point to get. We (as in you, me, your clients, people at large) do not know what we don’t know.
In my career, I have facilitated 71 client advisory boards for accounting firms. A client advisory board is an excellent process, involving the accountant inviting 10 to 12 of their best clients to a two hour meeting, facilitated by an independent chair, to gather input from the clients on what the firm does really well, where it needs to improve and for the clients to proffer suggestions in terms of additional services that they would find valuable.
From a client nurturing and client service perspective a client advisory board is a very worthwhile activity. But I can count on the fingers of one hand across the 71 meetings the number of innovative suggestions given by clients in terms of new services or service extensions. You see, people don’t know what they don’t know.
Steve Jobs was fond of saying that it is pointless to ask customers for suggestions for future innovation. If he had asked mobile phone users what they needed to make their phones even better it is inconceivable to imagine that he would have received feedback that would have led to what we now know as the iPhone. Similarly, who had any idea that compact discs would be a better solution than vinyl? (Some would argue they are not!) What customer could conceive the idea of a 5-cm square lightweight dongle that could plug into your laptop and provide 4G wireless Internet speed of up to 100Mbps?
Verne Harnish, in his book Mastering the Rockefeller Habits, encourages business owners to ask yourself what is your customer’s greatest need? He goes on very specifically to delineate between needs and wants, saying that customers will ‘want, want, want you all the way to bankruptcy if you let them!’ Good point.
In my Accounting days, I delivered many planning sessions to clients and I have since helped other Accountants roll out that service to their clients. I can tell you that not once did a client ever approach me and say ‘I need a planning session.’ Indeed, when I pushed back against what they said they wanted and suggested that they in fact did need a planning session, there was sometimes a certain level of scepticism. And yet 100% of the time, the clients reported after the session that it was of great value. In fact, I have heard more than once after running a planning session that ‘this was just what we needed.’ But no-one knew that beforehand.
This is why it is my position that it is in your clients’ best interests that you disregard what they say they want. It is not their fault – they simply don’t know any better. But if you accept what they say they want to be what they actually need, you are doing your clients (and yourself) a disservice.
Let me give you a couple of examples. Here’s one you will almost certainly relate to. A client calls, standing in a car showroom. They are about to buy the car and want to know if they should put it on hire purchase or lease. The knee jerk reaction is to give them an answer on the spot. Accountants tell me that in that situation it is impossible to do otherwise. Really? How many clients would object if you said that you needed to ask them some questions to gather more information so that you could be sure that your answer was in their best interests from a tax minimization perspective? And that once you had considered their responses, you would go back to them with a formal letter of advice – price for the work, $450. I think you are doing your clients a disservice if you kneejerk and give them an ill-considered response just to get them off the phone. I know you are doing it because they are standing in the showroom and want to make a decision but realistically, they can’t take the car away that instant in most cases; what difference will another day make to ensure all the ducks are lined up?
Here is another, perhaps familiar, example. I recall a client, John, calling me to say he needed a cash flow forecast. In my work with hundreds of accounting firms around the world, I know categorically that in 90% of cases, the conversation would go something like this:
John: I need a cash flow forecast.
Accountant: Fine, we can do that. When do you need it by?
John: How much will it cost?
Accountant: Well, that depends on how long it takes us to complete the work?
John: You must have a ballpark figure.
Accountant: It’s usually around $1500.
John: Goodness me, that’s a lot of money. We are really tight on cash. Couldn’t you do it for less just this once?
Accountant: OK, we’ll do it for $900 for you. So when do you need it?
John: Straight away. The bank is putting us under pressure.
Accountant: That’s fine. We will drop everything and get right onto it for you.
There are all sorts of things wrong with this discussion. The client is in control of a situation that the accountant should own. The accountant has caved on price and hence set the benchmark for all future price negotiations. The accountant has volunteered to bump other presumably important clients’ work in exchange for a $900 fee which will no doubt have very little profitability attached to it. But most importantly, the accountant has agreed to do this work without finding out what they client REALLY needs. And that smacks of negligence to me.
Let’s turn this discussion around:
John: I need a cash flow forecast.
Accountant: Thank you for calling, John. Tell me, why do you need a cash flow forecast?
John: The bank told us we had to get one done.
Accountant: Is that right? Do you know why they need a cash flow forecast from you?
John: We couldn’t afford the wages last week so I approached the bank manager for an extension of the overdraft.
Accountant: Really. Do you know what happened to put you in the situation where you couldn’t afford the wages?
John: That’s a good question. You know, I have been getting concerned that sales seem to be declining.
Accountant: Is that right. Would it help to take a look at why that might be happening?
John: Could you do that? That would be incredibly helpful.
Accountant: We can certainly do that. But first, let me talk with the bank manager before we rush into preparing any forecasts. Who do you deal with?
John: Mary Anderson at Westpac.
Accountant: I know Mary well. Let me give you a call on your behalf and then I’ll call you straight back and we’ll get a plan together from there.
Now in this situation, the Accountant may or may not end up doing the cash flow forecast but if they do, it will be on their terms. The entire discussion is more focused on the client and begins to uncover what the client really needs. The Accountant is not there yet and I will expand on how to dig deeper to establish real needs and objectives. But this discussion is in a much better place. Imagine how the client FEELS after this discussion versus the previous one. It would be difficult to argue that this approach is not in the client’s best interests. And that needs to be the yardstick by which we measure our approach and our actions.
About the Author
Colin DunnDirector & Co-founder at PANALITIX
Colin is a Chartered Accountant who, having spent almost 10 years with one of the fastest growing and most innovative firms in the UK, has since invested over 20 years helping business owners to improve their businesses with a focus on attracting new clients, better managing existing clients, developing new products, building an engaged team and strengthening internal business processes.
Colin's primary focus at PANALITIX is on product development and business improvement content. He is the author of the bestselling book “Accountants: The Natural Trusted Advisors".